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In Australia, the provision of oral health services for rural and remote communities can be extremely difficult, not least of all because of the country’s immense size. To help combat the inequalities which result, Sydney-based dentist Dr Jalal Khan regularly travels in his mobile dental surgery truck to provide much-needed treatment across Queensland and New South Wales. Khan recently spoke with Dental Tribune International about his vision for the truck and what the response from the dental community has been.
Dr Khan, when did you begin to operate your mobile dental truck, and what prompted you to do so?
When I was a dental student, I always had this idea of being able to do mobile dentistry—being able to practise my skills wherever I wanted was a bit of a novelty and quite appealing. Once I finished dental school, however, I did what many dentists do and went into private practice, but there was always this desire to do something more with my career.
One day, I happened to come across a mobile dental truck that was up for sale online. I flew up to Queensland to have a look at its set-up, really liked what I saw and was soon the truck’s proud owner. Another dentist, Dr Harry Craven, had originally put it together towards the end of his career. He had been operating it for 18–24 months in West Australia and then in Queensland before he retired, and though he had received a few other offers for the truck, he liked my vision for it and decided to sell it to me in early 2017. It’s been a very hard, yet exciting, three years since.
What did your vision for the truck involve?
I saw it as a way to help those who were underprivileged or disadvantaged in some way. For most people whom we had been treating, it was the tyranny of distance that hampered their ability to access dental care more than anything else. However, in those towns, there were still pensioners, healthcare cardholders and other groups who weren’t able to access private dental treatment, which in essence was what the dental truck was—a private clinic in some ways, but on wheels. I was self-funding the entire operation, and so I needed to see patients who could pay for treatment so that the service could continue to run.
There was an overriding feeling, however, that we needed to do more and to expand the services offered, so we restructured the entity as a not-for-profit organisation called the Dental Truck. The vision has been an evolving one. It started with providing dental treatment just for those in remote Australian communities, but we have since come to recognise that there are plenty of people in regional centres and even metropolitan cities who are vulnerable in one way or another and who could really benefit from our services. Right now, we’re aiming to hopefully attract some funding in order to equip more trucks and have more clinicians on the road delivering dental care.
Has the COVID-19 crisis changed, or stopped, the services you are able to provide through the Dental Truck?
Initially, there were Level 3 restrictions in place in Australia during this pandemic. These restrictions prohibited the clinical use of aerosol sprays and many dental services from being offered, and though these restrictions have been lessened in recent weeks, we’re still waiting for things to get back to normal before we start the truck back up again. We haven’t been able to go out for a few months at this point, and though it has been a bit of a frustrating experience, it was clearly the right decision to take this cautious approach in order to help slow down the spread of the coronavirus.
“We’re currently exploring ways to implement teledentistry not just during these coronavirus times but also moving forward.”
During this pandemic, we’ve seen how services such as teledentistry can be used in situations where physical proximity is difficult to achieve. Looking forward, do you think that teledentistry services can help remote and disadvantaged communities in the long run?
They can definitely help. I see the major use of them being for triage purposes prior to an initial consultation rather than for diagnostic purposes. Teledentistry allows us to chat with the patient beforehand and get to know what the dental issue is, what his or her medical history and issues are, before we go and see him or her.
We’re currently exploring ways to implement teledentistry not just during these coronavirus times but also moving forward.
Have other dental clinicians expressed interest in participating in this project?
Yes, they have, and I’ve been grateful for the number of clinicians who have reached out to get involved. Their doing so expands our clinical workforce, which helps to support the expansion of our services to more towns and greater numbers of patients. Our philosophy of care means that we don’t take on a new community unless we know that we can return to treat them regularly. If we want to effect change and reduce the incidence of periodontal disease, we need to be seeing these patients regularly and repeatedly rather than sporadically.